Undergraduate Research in Writing: Keeping It Real

By Kim Moreland

Kim Moreland is currently the Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program.  She is a Ph.D candidate in Composition and Rhetoric, writing her dissertation on authorship and networks.

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Kim Moreland

Undergraduate research is on my mind.  Undergraduate writing center tutor research was the focus of Lauren Fitzgerald’s keynote address at the International Writing Centers Association conference in San Diego in October.  And undergraduate writing center tutor research has long been the focus of English 316, the honors course in writing across the curriculum that all Writing Fellows here at UW-Madison are required to take.  But what drives this research?  What do these projects look like?  How do they help us rethink these issues central to our field?

This semester, I’ve been thinking about these questions often.  I’ve been teaching a section of English 316, and I attended the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing in Chicago with five undergraduate Fellows who presented their research.  Before this semester, I was familiar with the research conducted by Fellows – I’d seen several Fellows present at our annual joint staff meeting in the Writing Center.  But it wasn’t until I starting mentoring Fellows in 316 that I gave much thought to where the questions that sparked these projects came from: the particular interests of Fellows who are immersed in WAC as both tutors and students.

The assignment in 316 asks Fellows to design their own original research projects related to the tutoring or teaching of writing.  Fellows generally conduct qualitative research projects with small sample sizes.  They may observe conferences with either Fellows or Writing Center instructors, conduct interviews with tutors or students, or study Fellows’ written comments on student drafts.

As peer tutors, many of the Fellows are interested in how power and authority are negotiated in conferences.  And as undergraduate students, many of the Fellows are interested in considering writing in terms of their own academic interests and disciplines.  Here are just some of the topics that Fellows are working on this semester:

  • Facilitative vs. directive tutoring styles
  • Gender and body language
  • Gestures in conferences
  • Agenda setting in conferences
  • Tutors’ attitudes about grammar
  • Tutoring and 1st generation college students
  • Tutoring and normative discourses
  • Strategies for helping ESL writers
  • The teaching of writing in Art History
  • The impact of the English 100 and 118 beyond the freshman year
  • Student perspectives on generalist tutors
  • Whether Fellows and their students should be friends
  • The use of silence in conferences
  • Exchanging expertise with novice writers

What do these projects yield?   There’s way too much to include it all here, but I’m particularly excited about the ways that much of this research can complicate many of our beliefs regarding tutoring and identify new areas of inquiry.  For example, Fellows presented a panel on negotiating authority in the university at NCPTW, closely examining the unique position of the Writing Fellow as a peer tutor.

Jenna Mertz and Claire Parrott waiting for the keynote speech at NCPTW

Jenna Mertz and Claire Parrott waiting for the keynote speech at NCPTW

Claire Parrott looked at what she terms the “collaborative dilemma” for tutors who must negotiate their identities as both peers and teachers, which is not always comfortable.  Jenna Mertz examined how Fellows might encourage or discourage a student’s individual voice, and how tutors might view aspects of voice in inexperienced writers as having a lack of control.  Emily Dean’s paper on how Fellows’ work aligns with the goals of a liberal arts education (as outlined by Bill Cronon) suggests that we consider how Fellows move across the disciplines as both students and tutors.

Fellows also bring their perspectives to research on Writing Center work.  Nora Brand and Logan Middleton presented their research on tutoring and disability at NCPTW.  Logan’s research considered how tutors can work with students who may or may not disclose a disability, while Nora identified strategies that tutors use when working with students who have learning disabilities.  These projects reveal voices that might not otherwise be heard, and they take on difficult questions about our pedagogy and our identities.

Nora Brand, Emily Dean, and Logan Middleton at NCPTW

Nora Brand, Emily Dean, and Logan Middleton at NCPTW

In 316, the new Fellows started presenting their papers in class last week, and I’m already being challenged again.  One current project looks at tutors’ responsibility for communication and suggests that to be facilitative, one must paradoxically be prepared to take on some ownership in the conference.  Another on agenda setting notes that even when Fellows may think they are letting students take the lead, they may be implicitly forcing an agenda.  Yet another project confronts the meaning of collaboration by looking at directive tendencies in online conferencing.  I could go on, but my point is that these projects allow us to linger in areas that are not easy and clear and are continuously adding to my list of questions about the teaching of writing.

I’ve been telling my students that the research that they are conducting is real – that the research is not just to fill a course requirement, but to make a contribution to the field and to our tutoring practices.  I don’t know how convincing I am when I say this (but I am not sure at what point any researcher really begins to feel that their work is real).  Being able to point to experienced Fellows who present at conferences or who have published papers based on their work certainly helps build my case, but whether these projects are taken outside of the classroom or not, undergraduate research is vital to our work.

Waiting for the bus in Chicago

Waiting for the bus in Chicago

10 thoughts on “Undergraduate Research in Writing: Keeping It Real

  1. Kim, thank you so much for sharing this glimpse into the work our wonderful fellows are doing. I’ve seen a number of 316-ers in the Writing Center this semester, and I’m blown away by the insight in their projects. I think there’s something very powerful in asking those who are newly initiated into peer tutoring to ask questions about our practice, before it becomes too familiar.

  2. Thanks for this post, Kim! I’m always blown away by the incredible work that Fellows do for their research work, as well as in their everyday Fellowing. And on top of being rigorous, thoughtful, smart scholars, they also manage to be such kind and generous people! What a privilege it’s been to work with Logan, Jenna, Noah, and Aubrey on Writing Across the Curriculum events!

  3. Kim, I am always impressed by the work that the Writing Fellows do, and I am equally impressed by the poise and expertise they bring to their presentations that I’ve seen at our joint annual meeting. I hope that they do realize that they are doing good work, and important work! How wonderful to have a conference to recognize and promote this feeling; I am very proud to see the Fellows represent the Writing Center and the Fellows program at this national event.

  4. Kim, thank you for the insightful article–I think you summed up my research better in one sentence than I could in twenty some pages!

    I think Jessie brings up a great point in that there is something to be said for the “unjaded” eye of the undergraduate peer tutor. In conducting my research,I continually second-guessed myself– who was I,this green undergraduate,to be making claims and drawing conclusions in a discipline I had only very basic knowledge of? I felt an outsider who,like any visiting distant relation,has no business rearranging the furniture in your house.

    However, the discomfort of feeling “outside” of a discourse was what inspired my research;I had experiences as an undergraduate in an English course where my voice as a writer was deemed “inappropriate” for the discipline. And while I can’t speak for my co-presenter, Claire, I feel that her research on the “collaborative dilemma” stems from the same sort of feeling.

    Doing this research is uncomfortable. It makes Fellows question their place in the discipline. However, I think that it is this very questioning– and the accompanying doubt and reflection– which allows Fellows to perhaps see what established academics in field may not.

  5. As a presenter at the NCPTW in Chicago, I was honored to represent and celebrate the Writing Fellows program at UW-Madison. Much of my research was based on research conducted by Brad Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kahl entitled “What They Take With Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project,” which studied how the skills and values acquired as tutors pervades life beyond the undergraduate time as a tutor. I was extremely enthusiastic to get to meet and engage in an intellectual discussion with Paula during the conference. Since her work was such an inspiration to my own, I felt like a groupie meeting a writing rockstar! She and I, along with another writing center director from CA and a writing tutor from FL discussed confidence as a major factor in the peer tutoring conference session: how it is developed in both the tutor and the tutee. Paula had certainly provided me with the confidence to present my own research in Chicago and I greatly appreciated the opportunity I was given to meet one of my writing heroes!

  6. I feel so honored to be a member of a writing community that gives students opportunities for original research! The work that I did for 316 has had large implications in the development of my identity as a tutor. Not only did I get the chance to interview experienced Writing Center tutors, but I was also able to reexamine a topic of great personal interest through the lens of a new pedagogy. Working on the project allowed me to solidify, complicate, and develop many of my ideas about tutor/tutee identity and “best practices” in a world where we cannot make assumptions about the way individuals learn. I am grateful to have been able to remain engaged with my 316 paper, presenting it at both last year’s joint staff meeting and this year’s NCPTW conference. Thanks Writing Fellows/Writing Center for making this all possible and giving us the chance to “keep it real” with our research :)

  7. It’s always so great to hear about the smart, incisive, important–and, as you put it, real–work of the UW Writing Center’s Writing Fellows program! I am consistently awed by the professionalism and thoughtfulness of the work that the Fellows produce. I’m all for featuring, and recognizing, Fellows’ work as widely and prominently as possible, and I am looking forward to the Fellows/Writing Center joint staff meeting again this spring!

  8. Kim, thanks for featuring the excellent undergraduate research happening at UW-Madison. I’m reminded of the many ways that undergraduates find writing center research. For instance, I was lucky to work with Natalie DeCheck through the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) Program: http://www.lssaa.wisc.edu/urs/

    Natalie recently published a study that grew out of our collaboration in the special issue of Writing Center Journal featuring all undergraduate research:
    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ977373&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ977373

    Very proud of Natalie for sticking with the research over several years. I know many of the undergraduates featured here do the same!

  9. Kim, thanks for this post—it’s always fantastic to see what Fellows at UW are researching, and I agree with you that this year’s NCPTW presented a wonderful opportunity to witness the research presentations that emerged from those questions that undergraduate tutors find most pressing in their day-to-day practice.

    For the Writing Fellows from The University of Iowa, preparing research to present at NCPTW, did, I think, give them a chance to see that their experiential knowledge has a scholarly dimension, and the act of delving into those scholarly investigations gave them a vocabulary that allowed them to make those experiences meaningful (“real,” if you will) for others outside their immediate institutional context. At the same time, exposure to the scholarly dimension of our field has provided them with new critical ways to approach their tutoring and peer mentoring.

    Research by undergraduate tutors has also been vital to my administrative work. Seeing the trends in their concerns, as well as the perennial issues that arise for tutors of various experience levels, has informed the ongoing education sessions I design and my own approach to teaching and mentoring. In that way, too, undergrad research has an important real-world application.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  10. I happened upon this blog when looking for more information on Lauren Fitzgerald’s keynote address at IWCA. This is a terrific summary of the possibilities of tutor research. I immediately wondered how I might get Kim Moreland as a colleague. Brava!

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